Does Worthington Games get it wrong….again?

From their newsletter:

GUEST NEWSLETTER ARTICLE:  THE FUTURE OF WARGAMES by DR. LEW PULSIPHER

The following excerpts are from a blog that Dr. Pulsipher maintains and granted permission to use in our the Worthington newsletter.  Dr. Pulsipher has published  numerous books and articles on game design.  He will be a speaker at the East Coast Game Conference, April 23-24 in Raleigh, NC and his topic will be “On the Horns of a Dilemma” (Game Design).  He now hosts (through Fedora) online audiovisual courses at https://courses.pulsiphergames.com . They are still on Udemy.com.  They include “Learning Game Design”, “Brief Introduction to Game Design”, and “Get a Job in the Video Game Industry”. He will very soon be opening a course “How to Design Levels/Adventures for Video and Tabletop Games”. Some time after that he will open “How to Write Clear Rules (and Game Design Documents)”.  Follow his work atYouTube Game Design channel: http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHWWViIuBsOrSm2HXeBj2kA @lewpuls

The Future of (Tabletop) Wargames? Getting out of the wargame ghetto . . .

“I didn’t realize how out of my element I was until I had to listen to guys talking about their retirement and/or how they were retiring soon. Made me wonder if the hobby as I know it is going to slowly evaporate over the next decade or so…. (But no wonder I couldn’t find players for wargames all those years…!)?”

– Jeffro Johnson (who is approaching 40 himself, as I recall) about his experience at PrezCon ’14

(Lest anyone have any doubts, I am one of those Baby Boomers who grew up with Avalon Hill games, and am more or less retired. )

I was asked more than once during my PrezCon talk where the future of wargames lies. The Charles S. Roberts/Avalon Hill originated hex-and-counter game style is a Baby Boomer hobby, and Baby Boomers are a shrinking group. Tabletop wargames now sell 1,000-2,000 copies, typically, whereas in Avalon Hill’s heyday they could sell over 100,000. Even in 2004-5 when I came back into the hobby it was easy to see that there was a wargames ghetto (as I call it). People in the ghetto were okay with that but it did not and does not appeal much to people outside. And it gets smaller over time.

So what is the future of hobby wargaming? Practically speaking, the traditional market is disappearing. What can replace it?

Video Games?

Tabletop wargames not only have to survive vis-à-vis other tabletop games but vis-à-vis video games. We always have to keep in mind the greater popularity of video games when we talk about any kind of tabletop game. Yet the future isn’t video games, at least not the kind of simulation-like video wargames that have been produced so far by companies like Matrix Games. These sell hardly better than tabletop wargames (3,000 is a number I’ve seen, minuscule for video games requiring that much effort to produce). I don’t think video games are a threat or a salvation for tabletop wargames.

Multiplayer (Multi-sided) Games and “Losers”

The future of all kinds of tabletop games is in multiplayer (more than two player) games, because a great attraction of tabletop games that video games cannot reproduce is the social interaction. Whether that interaction occurs within the game rules or not, it comes from people being in one place seeing, hearing, and sometimes smelling and emotionally (and sometimes physically) feeling other people.

Another advantage of multiplayer games is that they don’t put “the loser” on the spot, they don’t involve the ego nearly as much. In a two player wargame, there’s a Loser with a capital L. In a game for five, there are four losers, but an average player is only going to win 20% of the time anyway, so you can lose and not feel “failure” – you’re in the same boat as almost everyone else, and “I’ll get ‘em next time”. You can also feel that you were the best player but people ganged up on you. At some point, there’s nothing you can do about that. (In the case where both/all the players are against the game, that’s OK – the humans are all in it together, essentially a single player game, and all lose or win together, no stigma involved.)

SPI’s surveys indicated that 50% of play of their games was solo. People who are inclined to solo play often like two-player, detailed wargames. I think the solo player is much more likely to play video games these days. Solo play is a mostly-dead-end for tabletop games.

So games that allow for the social aspects of face to face gaming, and don’t put the loser on the spot, are where wargaming has a chance to succeed.

“Peaceful” Semi-wargames

Games that allow for the possibility or even likelihood of war but recognize that peace is a better way to succeed are more broadly appealing than games that are out-and-out, cut-throat war. These games can be less directly confrontational.

Sometimes games of this kind are given funny names that imply a cross between Eurostyle and wargame. But there’s a big difference between wargame and Eurostyle that I think needs to be preserved in the semi-wargames, as they might be called, that many wargames allow for great differences in playing style, whereas many Euro games assume a formalistic style where certain paths to success are well-known and blocking those paths is a common activity, where there are “generally accepted moves” that you’re expected to make, that you may even be criticized if you don’t because “that’s not the way to play the game!”

To my mind, good multiplayer wargames are like open world video games, and Eurostyle games are more like closed world or linear video games. That open style is often lost in “simulations”, but simulations that force certain outcomes as the old SPI games often did are not going to survive on the tabletop – if only because they’re boring to most people and anathema to historians, like myself, who believe that what happened in the chaos of history is often not what was most likely to happen. (And also because that kind of simulation is almost always a two- player game.)

Grand Strategic Wargames

I think we’ll see more grand strategic wargames rather than tactical games. First, grand strategic games are more believable for more than two players than tactical games. You can easily think of entire nations as competing in a multi-sided way, whereas battles with more than two sides are almost unheard of. Second, tactical games in the wargame tradition are littered with nuts and bolts and details that hold much less interest for people in our fast living, imprecise century than they did in the glory days of Avalon Hill and SPI. Games that build up have proved to be more attractive to many people than games that tear down. A grand strategic wargame can be one that combines the tearing down that’s involved in taking economic value from another player along with the building up that people seem to like, a combination of negative and positive. In contrast, a battle game, one without an economy, where the objective is terrain-based or simply killing lots of the enemy, is purely negative.

Visual and Tactile Appeal

It almost goes without saying that wargames need to be more visually appealing. Wargames with traditional half-inch counters aren’t even a starter except in the wargame ghetto. If you must use cardboard counters, they need to be a lot larger. Three-dimensional pieces provide a tactile pleasure and feedback that you cannot get from video games, but it’s hard to get that from half- inch counters. Some larger counters feel and look (and even sound) more like tiles, and that may work. 3-D pieces and cards provide a visual appeal that standard wargames do not. Games with multiple numbers on each piece don’t have much appeal. Players don’t mind having lots of information on cards, but not on pieces. (NO lookup tables, either.) 3D makes it harder to put numbers on pieces, as well.

Stacks of counters are also a bad idea.Perhaps a reason for the popularity of “block games” beyond the fog of war is that they avoid counter stacks, and often have less information on them than do traditional counters.

Fewer Significant Decisions

The fundamental experiences people want in games have changed, too. People are much more interested in variety than in gameplay depth. They like lots of choices but they don’t like manydifficult/significant choices. They tend to rely more on intuition than logic, a reliance that’s often encouraged in the schools and society (“use the Force, Luke”, don’t depend on the computer to aim that torpedo). So a game with lots of choices but few decisions that make a significant difference tends to be preferred to the older kind of game, where there is not only lots of choices but lots of decisions, and decisions within decisions. This trend is already enormously clear in video games. Players want to be rewarded for participation, they don’t want to have to earn their rewards by making good decisions.

Hobby wargaming often involves studying the games. People don’t study games much anymore, especially casual gamers. Between cheap or free video games and the proliferation of many hundreds of new tabletop games each year, people are accustomed to playing a game only a few times before they move on to the next one in a kind of “Cult of the New”. I think wargames are still going to be a haven for people who want old-fashioned gameplay depth as opposed to simple variety, but if you want to reach a larger market you need to recognize that the number of significant decisions has to be reduced. Be sure your wargame doesn’t have a player moving dozens of units every turn!

Personal Stories

Gamers are also much more interested in personal stories and avatars in games than they were 40 years ago. RPGs are an example, and many kinds of video games, both just coming into existence back then.

Games, not Math Games

What wargames need to focus on is the other people playing the game, rather than on the details of the game system. You have to master the game system but that’s not the ultimate mastery, as opposed to chess and so many two-player wargames where mastery of the system is all that matters. (Oddly enough, mastery of real generalship is much about psychology, but wargames rarely reflect real warfare.)

Games where “Yomi” is needed, discerning the intentions of other players, reading their minds, are popular for many reasons (think poker, Werewolf, Resistance). Wargames need to make Yomi more prominent, and the details of mechanical play less prominent. Multiplayer, of course, immediately puts Yomi to the forefront in highly interactive games.

Shorter and Simpler

Finally, all games are noticeably getting simpler and shorter (especially video games). Wargames must as well. That’s quite a challenge for multiplayer games simply because the more players you have, usually the longer the game. I have pursued a quest for a “one hour (multiplayer) wargame” for many years, and while I usually end up with 2+ hours I do have one game that has been played in an hour by three players. But that will remain exceptional, except in wargames that use cards rather than a board.

Card-based wargames are another possible route out of the “ghetto”, but when you use cards you usually (though not always) abandon maneuver, which is one of the salient aspects of war.

Simulations?

 

I’ve briefly alluded to where “simulations” are going. The kind of simulation that values the model before the game, that tries to force a particular outcome to match history, is rapidly going down the tubes. On the other hand, wargames can never approach the abstraction of the typical Eurostyle game. Wargames have to be models of some reality, and anything that happens in the wargame ought to correspond to something that happens in reality. That’s rarely the case in Eurostyle games, which are frequently abstractions with some kind of atmosphere tacked on (yes there are exceptions). Eurostyle games are designed to have particular paths or actions that can be easily blocked by the opposition (without any actual destruction), and that’s not even close to the nature of warfare.

Conclusion

Will the “grognards” of the ghetto like these wargames? Maybe not, but it doesn’t matter, because they’re gradually going out of the market for games and publishers have to look at younger markets. Having said all this, I’ve described one of the kinds of games I like to design, so maybe I’m prejudiced. Or maybe I saw the need years ago and have been working on it ever since.

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4 thoughts on “Does Worthington Games get it wrong….again?

  1. I got this email from Worthington today and was unimpressed with there veiw on the state of wargaming, the market, and us Grogs.

  2. I noticed similar problem in eurogames – more and more publishers wish to publish small cheap card games with the volume of 10-50 thousand rather that some heavy titles in 5 thousand copies.

    We have lots of interviews on our blog with world famous designers and they say that the money is in the mass market not with hardcore gamers and grognards in this situation. I can’t blame them but I’m little bit disappointed…

  3. I’m way late to the party on this one.
    What is interesting is the date of this letter. After this, they pushed their company in a different direction. They released the two Holdfast games (Russia and Korea), their American Revolution games (New York 1776 & Trenton 1776) all of these are block games, which takes them back to their roots.
    All four games have extremely simple rules — they take about 10 minutes to learn, but decisions whose deepness is orders of magnitude out of proportion with the simplicity of the rules.
    It hits a sweet spot for me. VG’s Korean War is the gold standard and even Eastfront is meatier, but both are impractical to play often. To play 18 months of Eastfront is about 18 hours vs. 3 hours for Holdfast.
    In addition to those four games, they have another French & Indian War game coming out on Kickstarter — still waiting on that one, and they launched a big Band of Bros campaign and that is your perfect example of extreme realistic tactics in a small rules overhead, although that game pre-dates this letter by about 3 years, it seems to the model game.
    Within the niche market of wargamers, they found a niche from those who want a lot of fun and thinking in under 4 hours. I guess we have GMT if we want a marathon.

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